Outside groups weigh into VW union question: Union supporters say outside groups are scaring workers

photo Mike Elk, left, a writer for "In These Times," talks with Gary Watkins, president of the Chattanooga Area Labor Council, on Thursday before a discussion about Volkswagen and the UAW held on the campus of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. The two spoke on a panel with Michael Gilliland and VW employee Byron Spencer in the event organized by Chattanooga for Workers.

Outside interest groups are targeting Chattanooga to try to scare or manipulate Volkswagen workers from seeking United Auto Workers representation, union supporters said Thursday.

Also, a writer who said he has evidence of plans by groups to stop the UAW's efforts claimed at a meeting in Chattanooga that VW appears to be stalling over the union issue.

"Volkswagen is allowing a time window to open for people to change their votes," said Mike Elk of In These Times.

About 75 people showed up at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga to hear Elk and pro-union supporters talk about the UAW effort at Chattanooga's VW plant. The UAW claims it has a majority of the signatures of the 1,600 or so hourly workers asking the union to represent them and set up a German-style works council.

VW has sent a letter to plant employees, telling them the company has started a dialogue with the UAW to look at the possibility of "an innovative model of employee representation."

Gary Watkins, president of the Chattanooga Area Labor Council, said union backers are seeing different groups not typically in the area try to influence VW employees.

He said VW workers who may have come from prior jobs in lesser paying sectors may be easily swayed.

"It's easy to scare them," Watkins said. "It's the best job they've ever had."

Michael Gilliland, a board member for Chattanooga Organized for Action, said efforts must be made to make sure VW workers aren't manipulated by outside anti-union groups.

The employees ought to have the chance to talk about unionizing "and have power over the decisions they make." He said Chattanooga used to have a strong labor union presence.

However, an anti-union activist said Thursday that the UAW is "an outside group" itself.

Matt Patterson, of the Center for Worker Freedom, also cited IG Metall, a German labor union that represents many VW employees in Europe and which has expressed support for the works council and organizing the Chattanooga plant.

In addition, VW's global works council has been provided office space inside the plant, and a retired official of that entity has been stationed there for months to talk to interested workers.

Still, Patterson said, every group has a right to be interested in the issue.

VW workers should make the decision of whether they want to unionize, he said, adding there ought to be a secret ballot vote.

"It's their right," Patterson said.

Elk said leaked documents and interviews with an anti-union consultant show that a conservative group associated with activist Grover Norquist appears to be pumping $100,000 into media and grassroots organizing to stop the union drive. Patterson's group is part of the Norquist's Americans for Tax Reform.

Elk wrote about the issue in an online story in In These Times. The UAW is a website sponsor of In These Times.

Elk also said in the story that the anti-uion National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation is representing four VW workers who filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board claiming that VW was forcing a union on them.

Still, Watkins said he expects the VW workforce to organize, whether it be through the company simply recognizing the signed cards or by a secret ballot vote of the employees.

"I don't think it will be a problem," Watkins said.

Contact Mike Pare at mpare@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6318.

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